Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the wine press and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.’”

Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.

Mark 12:1-12

We are now very much in Lent, a season of self-reflection, in the midst of these very interesting times in which we live. If Lent is a time for reflection, restraint, penitence and turning from the ways of this world… well, this is as good a time as any to be begin practicing it. Hand sanitizer is not required, at least during this sermon.

This morning’s lesson for us is not exactly upbeat, but it meets us where we are. Anxious, troubled, worried, concerned, alert… just as Jesus’ disciples were as he shared these words.

These words weren’t spoken on a bucolic hillside, or by the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This story is set after Palm Sunday, as Jesus has already entered Jerusalem and the chief priests, scribes and elders begin to question him about his assumed authority. Their questions are intended to pin him down, to have him make a mistake so that they can charge him with heresy or treason. So although this story might appear to be chronologically out of sync, ahead of schedule on our Gospel timeline, it meets us squarely where we are in life; unsettled, on the edge, not knowing what happens next- but still drawn forward together by the palpable and mysterious presence of God in our midst.

Although Jesus’ words here sound very much like a parable, and even Mark calls it that, it is indeed an unusual one. Normally, Jesus never gives away the meaning of his parables; except this time he does. His message is barely veiled.

It is a blunt message, raw and disturbing, but it is not without hope. It is also part and parcel of the nature of holy scripture, words from another time and place, but yet still very much intended for us, here and now.

So how do we hear these words today? How do they have meaning for our lives now?

The American author and humorist Mark Twain is reputed to have said that history never repeats itself, but that it often rhymes. Famously, the renowned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once defined the nation of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Somewhat similarly, Jesus’ words are often veiled references foreign to our ears and hard for our living. But they still pique our curiosity because of who shared these words and what deep, hidden meaning we believe they contain. We tend to be attracted to the mysterious, to parables and riddles, even just to see what meaning we can find in them.

A clergy friend of mine has shared stories about when her younger cousins were little, and how they loved to tell riddles and jokes. They would stand in the archway of the living room and regale her family at gatherings with silly skits and questions. They would read from books with titles like ‘Knock-Knock Jokes for Children’. Why can’t you bend a nickel in half? Change is hard. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Cash. Cash who? No thanks, I prefer almonds.

Sometimes they would try out some riddles of their own. These usually involved non sequiturs that even the most comedic genius in the family couldn’t decode. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Elephant. Elephant who? There’s a banana on your head. As the adults would scrunch up their faces and roll their eyes, the kids would fall to the floor, laughing at a hidden hilarity of the universe that only they understood.

The kids viewed these performances as a way to capture the attention of the adults in the room. The less the grownups understood, the greater the kid’s satisfaction.

I think that’s something of what happens when we hear Jesus’ conversation with the leaders of his day. We want to figure out his words, no matter how obscure or culturally distant they may be.

At times, Jesus’ parables remind me of riddles from a children’s joke book. Some parables show an inner logic, or they are so familiar you have to nod in recognition.

For example, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket; but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all the house.” – or- “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Some other parables sound like confusing riddles, impossible to unravel. The scribes and Pharisees were looking for a direct answer from Jesus and he told them a story; which ultimately frustrated them and closed their minds and ears to hearing anything else from him. This might not be what you would like to have happened, but so it goes at this point of the Gospel. This is why people turn on Jesus; not just because of his ambiguous messages, but because his words are downright accusatory. Like this parable.

There’s no hint of mystery to these words, just a relentless message of a sad streak of inhuman behavior. It goes like this….

A landowner, wealthy enough to afford to plant a new vineyard, equips it with the latest technology, a fence, a first-rate wine press and a watchtower. Very nice. He leases it to tenants who presumably will tend it with loving care, then he goes off to another country. At harvest time, messengers are sent to check on the vines. But the tenants beat one, kill another and stone another. This is not a normal parable.

Then another slave is sent, then another, then another, all suffering various calamities; but when the final messenger is sent, the owner’s son (!) instead of being honored and welcomed, is brutally killed.

We thought this story would turn out well in the end, but it turns out to be a tragedy. The true Son, who went to claim his father’s rightful property was killed by rebellious tenants, like flippant and sneering characters in a Shakespearean play. This parable never needs an explanation; it tells it like it is. The owner will now return with a vengeance, and deservedly so according to the laws of the day, and there will be punishment.

This is a very raw story, understood by many scholars to refer to the history of how the prophets of Israel had actually been treated, over and over again….

But Jesus doesn’t end his words there. He told the vineyard tale for a reason, and explains why with words from Psalm 118. But first, I think there was a pause in the action, for dramatic effect. Jesus has just set up his audience for what should be an ‘aha’ moment..

Mark doesn’t record it, but I think Jesus may well have knelt down for a moment, drawn in the sand, or did something for them to pay careful attention to these next words which they surely were familiar with.

“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.’”

The religious leader knew exactly what Jesus was talking about here, and they did not like one word of it.

For us, 2,000 tears of history has clouded our vision, but the meaning of these words are really plain as day. As I read these words over & over this week, it turned my frown upside down. Really.

The stone in this passage was rejected- because it didn’t fit. As a native Pennsylvanian- when I hear the word ‘stone’ – I immediately envision a Keystone—that’s how it goes. Cornerstone/Keystone are used interchangeably here.

Yet a keystone does not fit into a normal wall, does it? It just doesn’t fit. It’s purpose is to hold things together… not just to be normal; not to be just ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ … thank you, Pink Floyd! A Keystone has one place to be, to fulfill one function, to be at the center and to hold all things together. A Keystone just doesn’t fit anywhere else. It’s either holding things together—or is very ill-fitting anywhere else.

So, speaking of ‘Keystone Staters’, there is a movie you should really watch, now that ESPN is full of reruns… “A beautiful day in the Neighborhood”, with Tom Hanks (bless him!), starring as Mr. Rogers, from Pittsburgh. In the TV preview scene which you have likely seen many times over, Mr. Rogers deflects attention away from himself. He engages in a movie-long conversation with an emotionally wounded reporter who is assigned to write about him, and Mr. Rogers ever so gently turns the tables, continually asserting that ‘it’s not about me,’ that the most important person in the world is the one he is speaking to at the time. Now, Mr. Rogers is certainly not perfect, but he does deliver a Christ-like message that holds things together for him, his family and all those he meets in his neighborhood, and beyond.

This is what Christ is about- one who holds all things together in all times and places. Even us.

As a matter of fact, we experienced a ‘keystone moment’ here at church, a time when we all recognized that ‘it’s not about me’- but about everyone, in a special ‘Emergency Management Team’ meeting called by Janet Short, our Head Usher and new Trustee who has taken her call to service faithfully and effectively.

We sat for 2 hours in a meeting to review what we’ve already done in response to Covid-19 awareness and to brainstorm planning for the weeks to come. We will meet again this next Saturday, too. What was most notable to me wasn’t so much the content of what was shared; everyone was a bit anxious, and everyone’s contribution to the conversation was important, but there was a clear awareness that in everything we talked about, it ‘wasn’t about me.’ Christ was with us, as a keystone, taking center place, allowing each other to honor, respect, and listen to each other. We got a lot done, and you’ll be hearing more about it all in the week to come, but most significantly, I hope you share the Spirit of hope, connection, common purpose and caring that God gives us in Christ.

We still have much to learn in this season of Lent. Some is unexpected, much we’ve already learned and are now given a chance to share with each other; love, understanding, compassion and caring.

May Christ’s Spirit continue to be with you and yours, bringing us all together in new and ever-creative ways, calling us to live and serve with all that we’ve been given; in Jesus’ name. Amen